International service in a changed world: Kidnapped CPT members show new reality

A swelling worldwide chorus is seeking the release of four Christian Peacemaker Teams workers abducted in Iraq. As this is written the militants who have taken the hostages say they will kill them if thousands of jailed Iraqis are not released, and their deadline has passed.

Christian Peacemaker Teams ( is one of several groups that send unarmed civilians into harm’s way to promote peace. Teams of CPT workers currently serve in Iraq, Colombia, Palestine, Canada and on the Mexico-United States border. They accompany people at risk, document abuses and literally stand between those who would do harm and their intended victims.

The beginnings of CPT can be traced to Ronald J. Sider’s challenge to the 1984 gathering of Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France. Those who believe in peace through violence lay down their lives by the millions, said Sider, professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword,” he said. I had the privilege of hearing this speech.

Two years later 100 North American Mennonite and Brethren church leaders met to discuss the implications of Sider’s call to action. I participated in that meeting, which resulted in a proposal for the creation of Christian Peacemaker Teams. A steering committee was formed, and in 1987 I was the recording secretary of its first meeting. I have followed CPT closely since.

During the 1980’s small wars and oppression of disenfranchised groups were rampant. The demise of the Soviet Union splintered factions once held together by the superpowers. Then the kidnapping and killing American civilians was rare. The benefits of a friendly America, and the danger of an unfriendly one, were a combination that gave great power to CPT and other pacifist organizations.

The days when Americans and other Westerners roamed the world with relative impunity are gone, thanks in large part to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Killing Americans has become a way to reach the world stage. Grab a Western hostage and your videotape is broadcast everywhere. Reuters reports that over 200 non-Iraqis have been abducted in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and 50 have been killed. What was a little risky is now downright dangerous.

I have been in the way of violent people many times, and have walked without fear on five continents, and always my naïveté, local friends and status as an American kept me safe. Few Americans realize how powerful they were because of this self-censorship by opponents who feared our power.

Being American is no longer a shield, but has become a bull’s-eye. Now it is unsafe to stand by an American, where until recently to stand by an American was to be safe. How does a person who wants to bring peace where there is injustice behave in this new world? How do organizations that bank on the former way of doing things shift? We can actually endanger the people we want to protect if we don’t respond wisely.

Sider’s call for pacifists to take risks for nonviolent peacemaking, just as soldiers take risks for violent peacemaking, still rings true, but doesn’t sound the same. Nonviolent peacemakers need to rethink their strategies, and need the support of their constituents as they make changes. We can also encourage our government to relate to the world in ways that don’t make Americans less safe.

One last story illustrates my point. On September 11, 2001, I was on an airplane flying from Tokyo to Singapore. The only flight that left the next morning was my flight home to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Everyone I met expressed sadness at the terrible attacks and offered sympathy. Even the guards at the airport in Jakarta went out of their way to express their sorrow to me and to reject the things that had been done. A month later the bombing of Afghanistan began, and the police assigned 12 officers to guard my wife and me around the clock, taking over the neighboring house for that purpose. There were anti-American demonstrations everywhere. A wonderful opportunity to turn sympathy into friendship had been lost. We are still reaping the result.

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower directs graduate academic programs in peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University.